A City of Two Tales

Cleveland is becoming a city defined by its collective impatience. Nearly three months have passed since a white Cleveland police officer shot and killed Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy wielding an air gun in a city park.
We’re still waiting to see if the rookie officer who shot him, Timothy Loehmann, will be indicted.

Less than two weeks after Tamir died, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder flew to Cleveland to publicly deliver the Department of Justice’s findings after a two-year investigation into police practices.

The devastating 58-page report, written by U.S. attorney Steven Dettelbach and DOJ staff, chronicled a pattern of unreasonable and excessive force so extreme and systemic—and unconstitutional—that federal and city officials are now negotiating a consent decree, enforced by court supervision, to ensure reform.

We’re waiting for that, too.

I asked Dettelbach earlier this month when, if he were solely in charge, would he announce the consent decree. His response: “Yesterday.”
He quickly added that, of course, it was appropriate to wait for community input, but there’s no denying his restlessness. “My constant push is, ‘Why isn’t it done yet?’”

Police Chief Calvin Williams’ response to Dettelbach’s question is to raise his eyebrows and frown. “Easy for him to say,” he said in an interview last week.

“They had two years to work on this report. We’ve only had a few weeks to digest it and respond.”

Mayor Frank Jackson echoed the chief. “We asked for them to do it. We cooperated with them. Now, I am trying to bring calm and stability to the process to get this right.”

Jackson made early headlines and drew considerable criticism by insisting problems outlined in the DOJ report were not systemic, despite its extraordinarily blunt conclusion that “the trust between the Cleveland Division of Police and many of the communities it serves is broken.” The report called for “a cultural shift at all levels to change an ‘us-against-them’ mentality we too often observed.” In an interview last week, Jackson said his critics were missing the point.

“My biggest complaint [with the DOJ report] is that it didn’t go far enough,” he said. “Investigate the criminal justice system and the disparity in how police are held accountable. Investigate who gets arrested and who does not; who gets indicted and who does not. … If you aren’t addressing that, then the consent decree is an illusion, and a facade.”

After years of covering the criminal justice system, and doing so here in Cleveland, I certainly see his point about how this is about more than just the police—how economic and racial disparities play out in the courts. When I suggested that this can’t be an excuse to do nothing, he agreed. Somewhat.
“I think this is about our comfort level,” Jackson said. “If you’re talking about the whole system, it’s too much to consider for most people: ‘Don’t put that anxiety on me,’ ‘This is too much for me to handle.’ Instead, they say, ‘I will accept this [consent decree] as a quick fix.’”

He is not, he assured me, rattled by his critics.

“I’m not frustrated. I’m really not. When they say, ‘The mayor has lost trust,’ I say, ‘Lost trust with whom?’ I’m not hearing that from the people I talk to. Whenever someone says that, I say, ‘Consider the source. Check their agenda.’”

Williams, who, like Jackson, is black, is fiercely defensive about his police force, and he too is dismissive of the systemwide indictment of the DOJ report. However, when I asked Williams to address the arguments made in Loehmann’s defense by Cleveland Police Patrolman’s Association president Steve Loomis—who insisted that questions about the patrolman’s competence raised by his dismissal from the Independence, Ohio, police force were nonsense—the chief hedged. Williams refused to discuss the Loehmann case, citing the ongoing investigation, but he added: “I don’t know if Steve knows the [Independence] mayor, if he’d interviewed the chief.” The heads of police unions “are going to fight for their members,” Williams said. “Sometimes you’re fighting for someone who’s guilty.”

When I asked if he was suggesting that was the case with Loehmann, Williams shook his head. “No. I’m just saying I know how it works.”

Dettelbach has made it clear that if the city isn’t willing to agree to major reforms, he will sue. “That’s not the best result in this case,” Dettelbach said.

“Court battles are divisive, very adversarial. My job is to work with whoever will work with me. I’m more focused on the fact that every day it’s not fixed, we’re continuing the status quo.”

And so we are a city of two tales, one authored by a federal government certain of its crusade; the other written by city officials claiming a superior perspective. It’s unclear which narrative will prevail, not just in fact, but in the hearts and minds of the citizens they serve.

Are the apparent divisions more a matter of rhetoric from men trying to save face? Or are the differences rooted in entrenched beliefs that the other side is dead wrong and an unwillingness to confront one’s failings?

As tedious as the back-and-forth bickering can be at times, we should hope for the former. The last thing Cleveland needs now is another round of trench warfare, hidden from view.